Once we’d officially arrived in Banff National Park, it was hard not to stop at every pull out along the road. I’ve been through the American Rockies, although not all of them, but the Canadian Rockies just seemed so much more imposing as you drive along the Trans-Canada Highway. Everywhere you look there are beautiful mountains soaring far above the tree-line. Taking in the drive to some of the main attractions is quite an experience all on its own.
Though two of the most well known attractions of Banff National Park are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, the Park Service has not allowed this to lead to massive parking lots at these places, thankfully. Quite the opposite in fact, they offer a free shuttle service from an overflow lot a few kilometers away. If you hope to drive yourself and park at either lake, you’ll need two things, patience and persistence. During the summer the route is fairly well regulated, with traffic being directed at each intersection between the highway and the lakes to keep the queues short. However, this also means that you might not be able to get where you want to go at all times. Moraine Lake was at the top of our list and with these traffic controls in place, you couldn’t simply turn left at the intersection, you had to go all the way up to Lake Louise first in order to come back along the same road and turn right toward Lake Moraine, adding about 2km to the trip. This all sounds simple, but when the parking is full at Lake Moraine, they close the road that leads to it, which is roughly 10km long and you’re routed back down the mountain to Lake Louise Village. Ordinarily, you might just go to the overflow parking and take the shuttle, but when you have a three year old in the back seat asleep, that doesn’t work very well. Never the less, we did at least make it up to Lake Louise on our first attempt and found the parking lot at that particular moment to be full, before attempting a trip out to Moraine Lake, fingers crossed that the road would be open at the moment we went past. It wasn’t…
Traditionally, our luck has held for such occasions, but not this time. The road was closed just a few cars ahead of us and a great feeling of disappointment set in as we continued down the mountain, unsure of where we’d go next. So, in the interest of making lemonade from our momentary lemons, we did what we often do and went for a drive. At the bottom of the mountain we went back toward the Trans-Canada Highway and decided to take the road less traveled, the Bow Valley Parkway. This beautiful road provides a nice reprieve from the traffic of the Trans-Canada Highway and allows for numerous stops just about anywhere you’d like, since traffic is fairly light. The Parkway is much more akin to the roads through many of the American national parks where the speed limit is fairly low and most people on it are there for the scenery and wildlife. It should be said that the speed limit in the park on the Trans-Canada Highway is usually 90 km/h (56mph) and does carry commercial traffic as well as tourists, while the Bow Valley Parkway has speed limits nearer 50-70km/h (31-43mph) and I don’t recall seeing anything larger than a camper van the entire time we were on it.
We strolled casually down the parkway for a while until we were hungry, then we stopped in the Town of Banff for lunch. We ended up in the parkade, (parking garage) where we found our way to the top floor to find an open space. Ordinarily, parking all the way at the top is a burden, but when the landscape is as wonderful as it is here, you just have to take it all in. Besides, it was only four floors and we’d been sitting for most of our day at this point. Walking through Banff was a pretty pleasant experience and it certainly has something for everyone, from the adventurer to the shopper and everyone in between. After lunch at Bruno’s, we were back on the road debating what to do next, so we thought we’d give it another go up to the lakes, because, why not?
At this point is was nearly 5 pm and surely our late lunch would be just before most were ready for dinner and this might allow us an opening as the day end exodus of people from the lakes unfolded. It was back in the car and back toward Lake Louise! Our luck had seemed to improve as we had found a parking spot at Lake Louise and took just a bit to walk along the shore. The crowds were thinning out and while the light might be difficult for most smartphone cameras, I think my new Canon did a decent job, though I wish I’d bracketed the shot to get more out of it.
After seeing how the crowds were earlier in the day and with the light waining, we knew we wanted to at least make it out to Moraine Lake before sunset, since we weren’t sure if we’d get another chance to return on this trip. We headed back to the car and made the trek down the mountain to find all of the traffic controls gone. We were relieved and excited! The drive itself is quite nice, but the road is flanked by trees in just such a way that you can only see some of the peaks as you make your way out toward the lake. Having seen photos of the lake before we had a general idea of what to expect, but it’s always different when you see it with your own eyes.
This photo honestly isn’t very good and it fails to grasp either the scale or beauty of the lake, but it does give a sense of what you see from the shore. This next shot though, I think was much better and speaks to what is really important.
Our little one had so much fun! Throughout our entire trip, she would point out mountains and lakes, but she was always the most excited about rocks and puddles! Sharing our adventures with her has been so exciting and rewarding, even if it does occasionally try our patience. We did linger a while at Moraine Lake as it was expected to be one of the highlights of our trip and even if the light didn’t ‘wow’ us, it was an amazing place and we knew that we’d have to come back again.
Once the sun had all but disappeared and we were now completely in the shadow of the mountains, we headed back to the hotel for the night. Due to logistical challenges in the scheduling of our trip, this meant that we were staying a bit further down the road in Canmore, a nice town with a bit less congestion than Banff, though based on my research, not necessarily any cheaper. Alas, an indoor pool is all a toddler needs to be happy, so we concluded our night with a dip in the pool before unwinding in front of the fireplace, to gather ourselves for the next day’s adventure, which just might include another attempt at Banff’s beautiful lakes. Stay tuned to find out whether or not we’d fare better as the forecast decided we needed a preview of late Autumn.